Slide Mountain: Or, The Folly of Owning Nature

Slide Mountain: Or, The Folly of Owning Nature

by Theodore Steinberg

The drive to own the natural world in twentieth-century America seems virtually limitless. Signs of this national penchant for possessing nature are everywhere—from suburban picket fences to elaborate schemes to own underground water, clouds, even the ocean floor.

Yet, as Theodore Steinberg demonstrates in this compelling, witty look at Americans' attempts


The drive to own the natural world in twentieth-century America seems virtually limitless. Signs of this national penchant for possessing nature are everywhere—from suburban picket fences to elaborate schemes to own underground water, clouds, even the ocean floor.

Yet, as Theodore Steinberg demonstrates in this compelling, witty look at Americans' attempts to master the environment, nature continually turns these efforts into folly.
In a rich, narrative style recalling the work of John McPhee, Steinberg tours America to explore some of the more unusual dilemmas that have arisen in our struggle to possess nature.

Beginning along the Missouri River, Steinberg recounts the battle for three thousand acres of land the river carved from a Nebraska
Indian reservation and deposited in Iowa. Then he travels to Louisiana, where an army of lawyers butted heads over whether Six Mile Lake was actually a lake or a stream. He continues to Arizona to investigate who owned the underground, then to Pennsylvania's Blue Ridge Mountains to see who claimed the clouds. He ends in crowded New York City with Donald Trump's struggle for air rights.

Americans' obsession with owning nature was immortalized by Mark Twain in the tale of Slide Mountain, where a landslide-prone Nevada peak turned the American dream of real estate into dust.
In relating these modern-day "Slide Mountain" stories, Steinberg illuminates what it means to live in a culture of property where everything must have an owner.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Steinberg, assistant history professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and Rutgers University, claims that we cause many of our environmental problems because we believe it is possible to own nature-the land, air and resources that make up the natural world. Ownership, in his mind, is equated with the desire to control, manipulate and subjugate what is owned. Unfortunately, this thesis is not fully developed, even though the five case studies forming the bulk of the book are supposed to ``investigate the kinds of distinctive problems that emerge when nature is fashioned as a thing that can be owned.'' The case studies themselves-a land dispute in Iowa occasioned by a shift in the Missouri River, a Louisiana debate over lakefront property, a battle over control of underground water rights in Arizona, a Pennsylvania court case dealing with ``cloudbusting,'' or weather modification, and a series of controversies concerning air rights in Manhattan-are interesting to read, if not particularly well linked thematically. Ultimately the book is more anecdotal than insightful. Illustrations. (Mar.)
Library Journal
Steinberg (history, New Jersey Inst. of Technology and Rutgers) acquaints readers with 20th-century Americans' attempts to own nature. Using an episodic approach, he examines legal cases in which the natural world has been transformed into property. Cases described include 3000 acres of land the Missouri River carved from a Nebraska Indian reservation and deposited in Iowa, a Louisiana court's attempt to decide if Six Mile Lake was a lake or a stream, Arizona's decision regarding who owns the underground, Pennsylvania's actions to see who owns the clouds, and New York City's struggle for ownership of air rights. Steinberg shows these decisions to be absurd provisions of property law attempting to control nature. This easily readable text is free of jargon. Recommended for general readers.-Patricia Owens, Wabash Valley Coll., Mt. Carmel, Ill.
Traveling from the banks of the Missouri River to the bayous of Louisiana, the Arizona desert, the Blue Ridge Mountains of Pennsylvania, and the heart of New York City, Steinberg looks at Americans' obsession with mastering the natural world--and nature's continual changes that turn the efforts to folly. (The title refers to a story by Mark Twain in which one ranch slips down on top of another, precipitating a mock trial where a judge tries to decide who owns the buried property.) His narrative illuminates the sometimes absurd provisions of property law and what it means to live in a society where the environment has been relentlessly turned into real estate. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
Melanie Duncan
In a collection of vignettes about humanity's drive to own or claim the environment around it, Steinberg shows the absurd extremes people will take their desires to own property. He details cases from the outer edge of property law, beginning with a dispute over land shifted from Nebraska to Iowa by a change in the flow of the Missouri River. The debate then ranges from the classification of Six Mile Lake in Louisiana as a lake or a stream, to the underground water of Arizona, to weather modification plans in Fulton County, Pennsylvania, to air rights in New York City, and, finally, to who owns the moon. Each debate hinges on the meaning behind words such as "property" and "natural rights" and even such mundane words as "lake" and "stream". The book provides thought-provoking glimpses into American culture and beliefs; the galley illustrations are poor, but the endnotes are plentiful. Recommended.

Product Details

University of California Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.69(w) x 8.55(h) x 0.84(d)

Read an Excerpt

Slide Mountain

Or, The Folly of Owning Nature
By Theodore Steinberg

The University of California Press

Copyright © 1995 Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-520-20709-2

Chapter One

Three-D Deeds: The Rise of Air Rights in New York

* * *

We will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed. -NEW YORK TIMES, EDITORIAL (1963)

Singer Tower was once the tallest skyscraper in the world. Over six hundred feet of red brick and steel lavished with pediments, balconies, cartouches, and consoles and capped by a huge mansard roof with decorative lantern-this futuristic gem was completed in 1908 for the famous sewing machine company. Its lobby resembled a cathedral, replete with sixteen exquisite piers of Italian marble, intricately detailed bronze railings, and a vaulted ceiling with glass domes. It boasted its own little generating plant for producing power and heat; special vacuum tubes set into the walls to make office cleanup easy; even a network of pipes made especially for cleaning silk hats. Not a detail was overlooked, right down to a system for distributing ice water-cooled in a basement refrigeration plant-to tenants. Singer Tower was truly a modern building, a structure ahead of its time. Perhaps that is why Ernest Flagg, who designed th tower, believed it to be "as solid and lasting as the Pyramids."

Flagg died in 1947. Two decades later, Singer Tower lay in a steaming pile of plaster and dust-courtesy of the Lipsett demolition company. Superintendent Harry Glick, whose crew leveled the tower, laughed when he was reminded by some reporters that back in 1908 Singer Tower held the height record before being overshadowed the following year by the seven-hundred-foot Metropolitan Life Insurance Tower. "History moves fast," Glick remarked. "I've been in demolition work for nearly forty years-on jobs ranging from chicken coops to skyscrapers. My father was a demolition man. He and his partner in the Louis J. Cohen Wrecking Company took down the old riding academy at Fifty-ninth Street and Fifth Avenue to make room for the Savoy-Plaza, and now we've taken down the Savoy-Plaza to make room for General Motors. History moves fast."

An inexorable economic logic drove Lipsett's wrecking ball. For all its beauty and elegance, the tower simply did not maximize the value of the site's air rights. It contained only a little more than four hundred thousand square feet of office space at a time when buildings four or five times that size were going up. Airspace had become a valuable commodity by the twentieth century, and only faint hearts would shy away from bulldozing the past to realize the future. No such hearts existed at U.S. Steel; the company built a fifty-four-story structure with 1.8 million square feet of office space atop Singer Tower's corpse. So eager was the company to capitalize on the new building's economic potential that it secured control over a plot of land south of the site and landscaped it into a plaza; that move earned U.S. Steel a zoning bonus that allowed the plaza's unused air rights to be transferred to the site of the imposing steel behemoth. Today the building looks like the work of a steel company. Finished in 1974, the structure amounts to a monumental advertisement for its product, featuring exposed steel girders evenly stacked one on top of the other. Thus did Singer Tower become the U.S. Steel Building, which became One Liberty Plaza when the company chose not to make its headquarters there. It was evidently more lucrative to stick with its current lease and rent out the new space on lower Broadway. Welcome to New York.

In the modern world, Karl Marx once observed, "everything seems pregnant with its contrary." Elsewhere, he explained why in a famous passage: "The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society.... Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones." "All that is solid," he concluded, "melts into air." But what would happen when all that was left was air? Answer: It too would melt. In the modern world, there is modern property, of which airspace is the quintessential example. Cut off from the land below, airspace has little, if any, territorial allegiance. In the century after Marx's death in 1883, New York City's air was distilled into a set of exchange values. Airspace became real estate, the better to own and trade it.

In a culture in which everything must have an owner, even something as diffuse as airspace could become property. How did this come to pass? What did the transformation of airspace into a commodity that could be owned and traded mean for New York and those who lived there? We must search for the answers to such questions to better understand the dilemmas of modern living, to make sense of ourselves, our cities, and the world we have made-and destroyed.

For centuries, land was a two-dimensional affair. When lawyers in Blackstone's day (1723-1780) spoke of owning real property in land, it was the earth's surface that they generally had in mind. Blackstone himself wrote that land comprehended in its "legal signification any ground, soil, or earth whatsoever; as arable, meadows, pastures, woods, moors, waters, marshes, furzes, and heath." It is, of course, true that Blackstone mimicked Lord Coke's famous ad coelum maxim (he who owns the soil owns upward to the sky). But nevertheless, it was the surface of the earth that concerned those in a society based primarily on agriculture. One could walk the boundaries of such real estate, spell them out in metes and bounds, revel in the neat and ordered expanse of two-dimensionality that unfolded across the countryside. Landed elite and commoners alike had both feet planted firmly on the ground.

The same was largely true in America as well. Jurists like James Kent paid homage to the ad coelum maxim; but it is hard to believe, in a society based largely (through the nineteenth century at least) on the tilling of soil, that property owners thought of real estate as anything more than the earth's two-dimensional surface. Certainly if possession is at the root of ownership-a commonplace in the law-it is hard to imagine that landowners really thought their "land" extended upward to the sky. As late as 1897, a treatise writer explained that "land means in law, as in the vernacular, the soil or portion of the earth's crust."

But in the twentieth century, all this began to change. With the rise of modern property, land took on a much broader meaning. The leading case of Butler v. Frontier Telephone Company illustrates the point. Butler sued the company when it stretched a wire over his land in Buffalo, New York. Neither the wire nor any supporting pole touched soil owned by him. Did Butler own the airspace over his land? Was he deprived of possession of that space by the telephone company's wire? In 1906, the New York Court of Appeals found for Butler. It reasoned that "space above land is real estate the same as the land itself." Possession is founded on an understanding of the earth as a discrete set of ownable things (a point explored in chap. 1). By equating airspace with real estate, the court established the reality of this new form of property. "This case," wrote one legal scholar, "is an unequivocal commitment to the view that the land-space above the surface is subject to possession and ownership in the same complete sense that the surface is."

"Land," another legal writer observed in 1928, "has been the most corporeal of corporeal things. It is real estate. Can an abstract thing like space be bought and sold as land? The air as such obviously cannot." But call what was above the ground airspace and property would plunge straight into the third dimension. Transformed into a thing, into real property, airspace was severed from the terra firma, cut adrift and catapulted into the world of property and trade.

In 1927, the Chicago Union Station Company sold the air rights needed for the Daily News Building. Meanwhile, Marshall Field bought air rights from a railway company and built the huge Merchandise Mart (finished in 1930), once the largest building in the world, with more than seven miles of hallways alone. With the aid of three-dimensional deeds, financiers in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Boston all began capitalizing on the air in their respective cities. "Within the memory of the youngest of us," Theodore Schmidt told the American Bar Association in 1929, "millions of dollars' worth of usable space has been reclaimed from the wastes of a generation ago, to the gain of all concerned." Thus did real estate lose its attachment to the earth and become deterritorialized. "Conveyancers and lawyers," Schmidt explained, "are now for almost the first time required not only to think, but to speak, of land ownership in terms of three dimensions."

That was 1929. But by then New Yorkers had already been talking about air rights for almost thirty years. The city's first encounter with modern property began in 1903 with the decision by the New York Central Railroad to rebuild Grand Central Station. Until this time, the station (first erected in 1871) and its railroad yards occupied a stretch of land north of Forty-second Street on the city's east side. The plan called for electrifying the trains and relocating the terminal complex underground on a two-level platform. An engineer named William Wilgus proposed that with the terminal located belowground, buildings could go up on the "air rights" (a term he coined) above. "The keynote in this plan," he explained, "was the utilization of air rights that hitherto were unenjoyable with steam locomotives requiring the open air.... Thus from the air would be taken wealth with which to finance obligatory vast changes otherwise nonproductive. Obviously it was the thing to do."

Cashing in on that air first meant tearing down what existed above Forty-second Street, including about two hundred buildings. Demolition has been big business in New York ever since. With the land now cleared of its past, workers exploded one million pounds of dynamite and hauled almost three million cubic yards of rock and soil out of the earth to make way for the new terminal complex. The station alone took ten years to build. Completed in 1913, the building is a stunning Beaux Arts inspiration. The main facade on Forty-second Street features Corinthian columns and huge arched windows topped by Jules-Alexis Coutan's graceful Roman statuary. On the air rights nearby, seven new buildings were initially planned, including the Manhattan, Belmont, Vanderbilt, and Biltmore hotels. The buildings were set on a steel and concrete roof that covered the tracks below; a special insulation system absorbed the vibrations caused by trains underneath. Eventually, air over some twenty-eight acres owned by the railroad was made available for similar ventures.

Building on air was a futuristic fantasy come true, but it was hardly the only product of the turn-of-the-century urban imagination. Property's new three-dimensionality also found expression in New York's 1916 zoning law, the first of its kind in the country. Prompted by the construction of the massive Equitable Life Assurance building (1915), which cut off light as far as four blocks away, the zoning law established height and setback rules. (The Equitable building is 27% smaller than the structure U.S. Steel later erected across the street to replace Singer Tower.) Under the 1916 law, a tower could reach a limited height before it had to shrink to only 25 percent of the building plot. The 25 percent tower could then reach as high as one liked. Zoning, however, was more than just a form of self-protection for property; it was a vision-in three dimensions-of what the city could become.

It is useful to compare the 1916 zoning law with the other major exercise in urban dreamwork promulgated a century before: the Manhattan grid. The grid, developed by Simeon deWitt, Gouverneur Morris, and John Rutherford in 1811, divided the city into more than two thousand blocks (12 north-south streets and 155 running from east to west). The Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas called the Manhattan grid "the most courageous act of prediction in Western civilization: the land it divides, unoccupied; the population it describes, conjectural; the buildings it locates, phantoms; the activities it frames, nonexistent." Not merely an incredible prediction, it was also an amazing act of arrogance. "Through the plotting of its streets and blocks," Koolhaas continued, "it announces that the subjugation, if not obliteration, of nature is its true ambition." What the grid did horizontally for the land, zoning did vertically for the sky. The 1916 law created more than two thousand imaginary boxes. It was a three-dimensional design for the city, and before long developers sought to make the most of each zoning box, maximizing profits by filling every square inch with concrete and steel.

The new geometry of modern property spurred one of the biggest building booms in Manhattan's history. Since at least the Civil War, the city's economy had been based largely on the manufacture of apparel. But manufacturing activity peaked around 1919 and was later eclipsed by a new postindustrial service economy. White-collar professionals-managers, brokers, lawyers, accountants, and so on-were flooding into the city to work. What they needed, of course, was office space to conduct their business. There were just three office buildings in the Grand Central area in 1900; in 1937, there were one hundred three. During the 1920s alone, sixty-four new buildings went up with a colossal twelve and a half million square feet of rental space.

Frederick Jackson Turner once declared that the American frontier had closed in 1890; New York developers proved him wrong. A huge frontier was lurking overhead-just waiting, it seemed, to be occupied. To the seven air rights ventures over the tracks leading out of Grand Central were added new hotels and office buildings. Slowly the holes over the terminal complex were filled in like a giant vertical jigsaw puzzle inching toward completion. First came three new hotels: the Marguery on Park Avenue between Forty-seventh and Forty-eight streets (1916-1917); the Commodore on Lexington Avenue and Forty-second Street (1917-1919); and the Ambassador up on Fifty-first Street (1921). Then came six more ventures in air, including: the Park-Lexington Building (1922-1923); the Roosevelt and Park Lane hotels (1922-1924); the Graybar Building (1926-1927); and the grand, ornate New York Central Building (1927-1929), a thirty-five-story tower with two traffic tunnels carved through it which could be seen from miles around. One historian called it "a fittingly extravagant conclusion to the orgiastic decade."


Excerpted from Slide Mountain by Theodore Steinberg Copyright © 1995 by Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Theodore Steinberg, Assistant Professor of History at New Jersey
Institute of Technology and Rutgers University, Newark, is author of Nature
Industrialization and the Waters of New England

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >